Wednesday, 11 February 2009

What lies beneath: shark attack in Sydney Harbour

From memory, one of the most terrifying scenes from the movie Jaws is when the monster shark takes its first victim.

The audience witnesses the attack from two vantage points, above and below the calm surface of the water. Above is the head of a young woman, below is her torso, arms and legs. It's the legs I remember - moving languidly, enticingly - just enough to keep her afloat and just enough to alert the killing machine of her presence.

Naturally, the rest is carnage.

Human beings have a primaevil fear of sharks. A visceral, gut churning terror grips every one of us at the possibility that we might ever encounter such a massive, powerful, robotic terminator. Worse still, is contemplating a horrific death as the shark chainsaws its way casually through each of our body parts.

As an ocean swimming participant, I have learnt to manage my fear of sharks. Research shows that most sharks are more frisky at dawn and dusk when they're out hunting for food.

And the ocean swims are generally well patrolled by the organisers and swimmers are comforted (though some are distburbed) by the knowledge that the majority of Sydney's surfing beaches have been meshed (since 1937).

However, Sydney Harbour is another story. It's deep and dark. Some areas aren't meshed. Visibility is limited to about 20cm. It's not like the ocean where, on a calm day, swimmers can marvel at the fish and reefs they might be lucky enough to swim over.

In Sydney Harbour you're swimming blind. I know because I've done it twice as an entrant in the Sydney Harbour Swim Classic, which starts from the Man 'O' War steps at the Sydney Opera House. Swimmers then follow a 2km course out to Mrs Macquarie's Point and around Farm Cove before returning to the steps.

It's an inpsiring swim, mostly because with each breath and turn of the head you're catching a glimpse of the Opera House sails, the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Royal Botanical Gardens.

But back to the main point (or white pointer) of this blog. SHARKS!

The event's location is just around the corner from Woolloomooloo Bay and the naval base Garden Island, where a navy diver was recently attacked by Bull Shark (the experts are pretty sure the bull is the culprit).

The shark struck Able Seaman Paul Degelder, 31, from below. It bit his right hand and leg, but retreated after he punched it. Degelder is in hospital in a critical but stable condition, according to a story in The Sydney Morning Herald (February 12, 2009).

Another story in the SMH reveals that shark numbers in the harbour are on the rise. John Dengate from the National Parks and Wildlife Service was quoted as saying: "February and March seems to be the time of year when we get more sharks and surface fish in the harbour.

"I guess it's the downside of the environmental controls... 20 or 30 years ago the harbour was a very difficult place to be for a fish, these days it's actually quite beautiful."

Great! I wonder if the bull shark was admiring the Opera House before becoming distracted by a whiff of breakfast?

I also wonder how the organisers of the harbour swim, which takes place on Sunday March 1 from 9.30am, are dealing with this minor complication?

If you go to the website which can be accessed through you will find a slab of information on safety and risk management. The organisers explain that they have the 'safety of the swimmers as the number one priority'.

The event is professionally run and I'm sure the organisers will attempt to cover every base on the day. Apart from the 1km and 2km swims, this year a new event - a charity sprint to and back from Fort Denison - has been added. Mmm, not for a plodder like me.

In the report Likelihood of a Shark Attack in Sydney Harbour During the Sept 2000 Olympic Games, the authors suggested that one of the best ways to deter sharks was to 'have boats with motors (as opposed to canoes, kayaks or surf boards without motors) patrolling outside of the swimmers ... this is on the presumption that motors in the water will deter sharks from the immediate vicinity.'

Or what about this? 'Placing a line of scuba divers equipped with Electric Protective Oceanic Devices ... between the patrolling motor boats and the swimmers.'

I like it.

I haven't paid my $40 entry fee yet. I'm holding off for a bit. Maybe it's itchy feet. Maybe it's because I'd like to keep my feet!

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on sharks. Look out for part 2 SOON.

Shark attack in Woolloomooloo

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